New Research Helps Find ‘Needle In The Haystack’ Needed For Those With Parkinson’s Disease

Jan 10, 2017

Sharp Edge CEO Scott Sneddon stands in the company's lab on the South side where they are looking to cure genetic diseases by helping proteins to move properly within diseased cells.
Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

This month, Pittsburgh-based Sharp Edge Labs partnered with a Japanese pharmaceutical firm to expand research that could cure a small percentage of people suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma CO., Ltd. is pairing with Sharp Edge in its research looking at protein trafficking, which is the movement of proteins within a cell to the receptor for which they were created.

“Many genetic diseases actually result because the protein doesn’t get to the right place anymore,” Sharp Edge Labs CEO Scott Sneddon said. “It’s still getting made, but it gets mis-addressed, and therefore it’s not in the right place.”

When those proteins don’t go to the right place, the cell can get sick, die or do something it shouldn’t, resulting in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Sharp Edge’s technology tags the proteins and their receptors so they literally lighting up where they fit together.

“And that makes it much more sensitive because cells don’t normally emit light and that tells us our sensor has gone off,” Sneddon said.

Sharp Edge is testing the compounds on cells grown from blood drawn from patients with Parkinson’s and other genetic diseases. Sneddon said his work might not help those patients, but he hopes it will help future generations.

It's gritty work; Sneddon said it can be more complex than finding a needle in a haystack.

“You have to search whole haystack to find the needle,” he said. “Now once you found the needle it’s not ideally what you are looking for and so (Sumitomo takes) it back and make adjustments to it.”

Sumitomo’s job will be making compounds that make the proteins more likely to find their cell receptors. From there, they'll refine the compounds that Sharp Edge found to show the most potential.   

“They will be making the compounds, making all the variants and changing its shape subtly, sending them back to us and we will say, ‘Ah! That’s the best thing we’ve made so far. This made it worse, that made it better,’” Sneddon said. “And they’ll just keep following their nose until they sort of go, ‘Better, better, better,’ until we find something that’s good enough.”

Sharp Edge expects to test hundreds of thousands of compounds, or “needles".

The company didn’t start out doing this kind of research, though. Sharp Edge initially spun out of CMU a half-decade ago, selling its sensing technology to other companies. When Sneddon heard from customers that Sharp Edge was actually better equipped to do research than they were, he said he decided it was time to do just that.

Nathan Josephsohn, senior director of external R&D at Sumitomo helped create the deal with Sharp Edge. He calls himself a “science scout,” and said, though Sharp Edge is small, he spotted something innovative.

“When I see cool science that is enabled by some really great patents and research at university levels, it doesn’t matter the size of the company,” he said.

And the research behind finding these compounds is not new. Scientists have been doing it for years, but by combining Sharp Edge’s technologies with off-the-shelf automation Sneddon said he hopes to expedite the effort.

“It used to be that people would do these experiments one at a time by hand in individual test tubes and we could never really find the drugs we were looking for because we just couldn’t test enough stuff,” Sneddon said. "We’d search through the haystack and we just wouldn’t find the needle and then those people would retire (without making a breakthrough.) Now we can search through the haystack in a couple of weeks because the machines are doing it at a massive scale.”

In this week's Tech Headlines: 

  • Research out of the University of Pittsburgh shows that depression and anxiety among young adults is more strongly related to the number of social media sites they visit rather than time spent on those sites.  The analysis was published online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. It shows people who report using seven to 11 social media platforms had more than three times the risk of depression and anxiety than their peers who use zero to two platforms, even after adjusting for the total time spent on social media.
  • WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is denouncing last week's U.S. intelligence report on Russian hacking, calling it a politically motivated "press release" that provided no evidence that Russian actors gave WikiLeaks hacked material. Assange says the report is vague and that U.S. intelligence officials should be embarrassed. The report accuses Russia of trying to interfere with the U.S. political process by hacking email accounts.  It explicitly tied Russian President Vladimir Putin to the hackings.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.